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The airport that came in from the cold – and then went out again

Simon Calder
·4-min read
<p>Lonely plane: Berlin is seeing one-tenth of its expected passengers</p> (Simon Calder)

Lonely plane: Berlin is seeing one-tenth of its expected passengers

(Simon Calder)

It didn’t happen in 2011, 2012 nor in any year up to and including 2019.

But in 2020, Berlin Brandenburg airport finally opened after a construction performance of implausible incompetence.

I paid £57 for the privilege of being on the first flight: easyJet’s departure to Gatwick, just six hours into November. Yet even before the end of the month, the airport’s bosses said the expansion had gone into reverse.

Berlin Brandenburg (let’s just call it BER – everyone else does) is an unusual one. It is basically a southward expansion of the old East Berlin airport, Schonefeld. The old terminal here is recommended for anyone keen to experience a frisson of Cold War architecture. And when BER opened, the DDR hub was not bulldozed as you might have expected.

Instead, it was kept alive to meet the demand for flights from Europe’s biggest budget airline, Ryanair (which no doubt negotiated some highly favourable terms).

And the runway along which jets belonging to Interflug (the East German airline) used to roar was also kept in service – with a twin created on the other side of the BER terminal complex.

So far, so coherent. But the hoped-for acceleration of aviation failed to materialise. And a few hours before November reached its bitter end, BER reported passenger figures just one-tenth of the expected numbers.

With the German Airport Association predicting one-third of passenger numbers in the whole of 2021 compared with 2019, the communique described the coronavirus pandemic as “a serious turning point in the aviation industry” and revealed that the Soviet-era terminal would close after all – but only for a year.

“Due to the small amount of air traffic, the [new] southern runway shall be temporarily out of operation,” it added. In other words: the German capital will be served by today’s terminal but yesterday’s runway. The airport that came in from the cold has promptly headed out again.

Rainer Bretschneider, chairman of the airport board, said: “We have to assume that, due to corona, further difficult years lay ahead of us.”

In the early days, there were high hopes of Lufthansa setting up a hub to match its Frankfurt and Munich bases; that dream crumbled, as witnessed by the first flight being easyJet to Gatwick rather than the German national carrier to New York or Shanghai.

Politically, BER is too East German to fail. The airport is seen as essential infrastructure to balance against the successful and (mostly) high-tech airports of Munich, Frankfurt, Dusseldorf and Hamburg in the former West Germany. The forlorn new airport will certainly receive the £7,000 per hour its bosses calculate they need to get through the coming year.

But the lessons of BER, and the wider coronavirus pandemic are being studied across the world – except, perhaps, in China, which is now the leading aviation nation.

In North America, Mexico City – whose existing airport wins the global prize for massive aviation hub completely surrounded by a vast city – is being complemented by General Felipe Angeles airport. This will turn an old military facility 20 miles north into a budget hub.

Sydney has been planning a new, unconstrained 24-hour airport at Badgerys Creek, 25 miles west of its existing haphazard collection of terminals and runways on the brink of Botany Bay, since 1986. It may become a reality by 2026 – the same year when Sydney surrenders its title as Australia’s biggest city to Melbourne, if present population trends continue. I predict SWZ, as the new airport is coded, will turn out to be a bit of a swizz – with cargo jets, budget airlines and their passengers lured there with lower costs, while SYD remains the hub of choice.

Istanbul was the last great new airport to open in the Europe and Middle East region for some decades. Dublin and Prague are getting second runways and Paris CDG a fourth terminal, but the developments are all about incremental growth rather than aviation mega-projects.

And whither Heathrow, which I recall was poised to open its third runway and sixth terminal in 2026? The airport owners insist that extra capacity will be needed by the Thirties, and are eager to get on with it. But with London dropping from world’s leading aviation city to eighth in line, I see no appetite from the airlines and their passengers who would pay for it.

Read More

Auf wiedersehen, Tegel: the long goodbye to West Berlin

Berlin’s new airport welcomes its first passengers – nine years late

Inside the world’s newest airport: Berlin Brandenburg